Elizabeth Sarah Gere: Getting A Foot in the Courtroom Door
by Barbara Kagan
Based on the Oral History of Elizabeth Sarah Gere for the D.C. Circuit Historical Society
Elizabeth Sarah Gere began her extraordinary 50-year legal career at a time when women attorneys were a minority and even fewer were litigators. Nonetheless, Sally, as she is known to her friends and colleagues, reached the height of the profession holding prominent positions in both the federal and local government and in the private sector as a partner at a prominent law firm. She also taught at one of the nation’s top law schools, has been a committed volunteer with several nonprofit organizations dedicated to advancing the lives of young people, and has served as an elected member of the Board of Governors of the 113,000-member District of Columbia Bar.
Born in Rochester, New York, Sally grew up in nearby Syracuse with her parents and three younger sisters. She spent part of her junior year in high school as an exchange student in Bandol, France, a small town in Provence. She went on to major in French and graduate Phi Beta Kappa and with high honors from Denison University.
Even though Sally did not know any attorneys personally, she decided to go to law school on the prescient belief that she could be an effective advocate, having had years of experience challenging her father if she thought he was being too harsh with her and her younger sisters. When Sally was offered a scholarship to Syracuse University Law School in 1969, she was the only woman then accepted at the school. After her first year, Sally transferred to George Washington University Law School and graduated with honors.
At a time when it was rare to see a woman law clerk in federal court, Sally was hired to serve as a law clerk for Judge June L. Green of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, one of the few women judges and only the fourth woman to be appointed to the federal trial court. Sally found a courageous role model for her legal career in Judge Green.
At the conclusion of her two-year clerkship in 1975, Sally joined the Criminal Division of the U.S. Department of Justice where she worked on some of the most significant cases of the day involving First and Fourth Amendment rights, absolute and qualified immunity, and state secrets privilege. In Halperin v Kissinger (1979), Morton Halperin challenged the use of a wiretap that had been placed on his phone to determine the source of a leak of classified information. In addition to preparing extensive briefing, Sally represented former President Richard Nixon at his deposition taken at his home in San Clemente, California. Sally also represented several other defendants at their depositions including former Nixon aide H.R. Haldeman and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
In Halkin v. Helms (1982), another of Sally’s notable cases, she defended the United States before the United States District Court for the District of Columbia over the alleged use of electronic surveillance of antiwar protesters. The District Court upheld the government’s assertion of state secrets privilege, thereby precluding the plaintiffs from litigating further without the requested information and documents necessary to prove their case. The D. C. Circuit affirmed the decision, upholding the privilege. Though it had been only a few years since she had graduated from law school, Sally was one of few women to litigate such high-profile matters for the United States.
Sally later transferred to the Civil Division at DOJ where she litigated several more consequential cases concerning the First Amendment, national security and the press. Just one example: in Snepp v. United States (1980), Sally served as lead trial counsel in the government’s challenge to the release of a book written by Frank Snepp, a former CIA analyst, published without the required agency pre-publication security review. The government prevailed in the Supreme Court and to this day, Snepp remains binding precedent to protect national security.
In United States v. The Progressive, Inc. (1979), Sally was a member of the DOJ team that sought an injunction to prevent the publication of an article containing information on how to build a hydrogen bomb. The issues were so sensitive that the attorneys working on the matter had to obtain high-level security clearances, and many of the filings were under seal. Although the United States won an injunction to halt publication, the case later became moot after another publication obtained and published the article.
In 1980, Sally joined the United States Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of Ohio in Cincinnati. As an AUSA, Sally tried both civil and criminal cases and later was appointed Chief of the Civil Division in that office. She litigated and supervised a wide range of civil matters involving constitutional and regulatory challenges to federally funded programs, employment discrimination, medical malpractice and wrongful death matters, Bivens actions, and dozens of cases related to the swine flu vaccine. On the criminal docket, Sally handled mail fraud, wire fraud, and drug cases. In 1985, Sally returned to Main Justice in Washington to lead the Attorney General’s Advocacy Institute teaching AUSAs from around the country and DOJ attorneys who litigated civil cases on behalf of the United States.
Sally left federal government service in 1987 for private practice, joining the boutique firm of Ross, Dixon & Masback, where she was one of the few women law firm partners in the city. Her practice was focused on civil litigation, with an emphasis on defending professionals, including lawyers and accountants, charged with malpractice. She also counseled clients in employment matters and litigated cases involving discrimination against women holding management positions. Additionally, Sally served as the firm’s General Counsel for many years. In 2009, Ross Dixon merged with the national firm of Troutman Sanders LLP, where Sally continued her civil litigation practice.
Sally aspired to return to public service work before she retired from the active practice of law. In 2011, she was honored to be asked to join the Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia. Serving first as an Assistant Deputy and then as a Deputy Attorney General, Sally litigated and supervised cases that involved some of the most difficult legal issues facing the District of Columbia, including gun control, budget autonomy, attorney’s fees, class actions, government contracts, consumer protection, and challenges to government programs. And, coming full circle, with her retirement from OAG in 2018, Sally finished her legal career in the same office where she had started it as a legal intern almost 50 years earlier.
Despite her many work obligations, Sally always found time to serve both her community and the profession. Her strong commitment to nonprofit work is reflected in her longtime service as a member of the Board of Directors of the Abramson Scholarship Foundation and the Women’s Advisory Board of the Girl Scout Council of the Nation’s Capital. As a member of the Board of Governors of the District of Columbia Bar, she served as chair of the Planning Committee for the Bar’s 2020 Conference, 100 Years of the 19th Amendment: “Now We Can Begin,” marking the passage of the amendment by which women won the right to vote.
In addition, Sally served as a Bar Examiner and as a Hearing Committee member of the Board on Professional Responsibility. In each of these roles, she was involved in precedent-setting matters, including In Re Sofaer in whichthe District of Columbia Court of Appeals upheld the recommendation of a Hearing Committee on which she served to discipline the former Legal Adviser of the State Department for violating the D.C. Rules of Professional Conduct by representing the government of Libya in the same matter he previously had worked on during his tenure with the government. Sally also was appointed by the United States District Court for the District of Columbia to a number of significant committees and panels, some of which she chaired.
Sally was an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center for two decades, where she taught trial practice and helped develop a year-long seminar focused on how to try a civil case. In 2007, she received the Distinguished Adjunct Professor of the Year award. Sally also was a Master in the Charles Fahy Inn of Court, one of the first Inns of Court in the country. And in a less formal though no less meaningful capacity, Sally mentored young attorneys throughout her career, taking pride in their many successes.
Sally Gere’s oral history is an engaging and instructive story about the challenges and successes of a woman litigator when there were few women in the courtroom. Sally got her foot in the courtroom door and continued to pave the way for women lawyers to follow, just as her role model, Judge June L. Green, had done for her.
Sally Gere grew up in Syracuse, N.Y. with her parents and three younger sisters in an era that began to open new professional opportunities for women. For Sally ,that led to the law. After graduating from Denison University and George Washington University Law School, Sally was a law clerk to Judge June L. Green of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia-the fourth woman in the country to be appointed to the federal trial bench. With Judge Green as her role model, Sally learned how to be a successful trial lawyer.
After her clerkship, Sally served in the Criminal and Civil Divisions of the U.S. Department of Justice and was Chief of the Civil Division in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of Ohio. She then returned to the District of Columbia, where she spent more than two decades as a partner and general counsel at Ross, Dixon & Bell, now Troutman Pepper. h 2A11, Sally returned to public service as a Deputy Attorney General in the Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia, where she worked until her retirement in 2018.
Over her career, Sally litigated a wide variety of civil and criminal cases in trial and appellate courts in the District of Columbia and across the country. Many of them made headlines in the Washington Post and the New York Times, and several reached the Supreme Court of the United States.
Sally taught at and, for a year, led the Justice Department’s Advocacy Institute program for civil litigation. Sally also was an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center for over 20 years, where she was honored with an Outstanding Adjunct Professor award.
Sally’s other contributions to the profession include having served as a bar examiner with the D.C. Court of Appeals Committee on Admissions and as a member of one of that Court’s Board on Professional Responsibility Hearing Committees. She was Chair of the D.C. District Court’s Committee on Pro Se Litigation, and a member of its Local Rules Committee, its Lawyer Counseling Panel, and its Merit Selection Panel for magistrate judges.
Sally has been a member of the D.C. Circuit Judicial Conference for decades and has received numerous professional awards. She was one of the first members of the Potter Stewart Inn of Court in Cincinnati, Ohio, and was a member of the Charles Fahy Inn of Court, the first Inn of Court in the District of Columbia.
Headshot: Born September 14, 1947, in Rochester, New York
Sally and her sisters, left to right, Marcia, Margaret, Laura and Sally 1953
Graduation from Syracuse Central Technical High School 1965
Sally with her parents, Bettie and David Gere, at her graduation from Denison University in 1969
Sally begins her clerkship in the chambers of Judge June L. Green 1972
Sally’s law clerk portrait that Judge Green displayed in chambers with portraits of all her clerks until her death in 2001
Judge Green and Sally 1995
Courtroom artist sketch of Sally arguing on behalf of the United States in federal court in the Western District of Wisconsin in 1979 in United States v. The Progressive, Inc.
Sally in her office in 1983 in the Southern District of Ohio U.S. Attorney’s Office where she served as Chief of the Civil Division
Sally and her husband Bill Causey at Camden Yards in 1995 when Cal Ripken broke the consecutive game record
From the website for the Washington, D.C. law firm of Ross, Dixon & Bell where Sally spent more than 20 years as a partner 1996
Sally completes hiking the three-country Tour de Mont Blanc 1998
Sally and her husband Bill in 2017 in London.
Sally’s identification badge in 1971 for her first legal position—legal intern for the District of Columbia Office of the Corporation Counsel (now known as the Office of the Attorney).
District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine bids Sally farewell on her retirement in 2018 as a Deputy Attorney General in the same office where she started her career—47 years later, with many other legal jobs in the interim.
From left to right is: Mary Brennan (Justice Brennan’s wife); Dr. Noreen McGuire, E. Barrett Prettyman Jr., Justice William J. Brennan Jr., Elizabeth Sarah (Sally) Gere, and William (Bill) F. Causey.